Nobody can avoid death because death is a reality.
No one can cheat death, but for thousands of years, humankind has tried to elude decomposition. Whether we’re saving our bodies for the afterlife or time traveling to a better future, peoples throughout history have gone to astounding lengths to preserve their mortal remains.
1 – Mummification
The moment the word body preservation, is uttered, we immediately think of the Egyptians and their mummification process. It is the oldest method of body preservation and is considered as a hallmark by many cultures. Embalming originated in Egypt around 6000 BC. It was believed that if the body does not decay, the soul is strengthened and it would eventually return to the body someday.
The wealthy families followed a lengthy mummification process for their loved ones. Initially, the body is eviscerated wherein all the body organs are removed except the heart due to the belief that it is necessary for the journey of the afterlife. However, the brain is removed using a highly scientific method. A hook is stuck up the nose and is swirled around to make the brain slushy. The head is tilted forward, and the goop pours out.
The eviscerated corpse is then washed with a mixture of spices and palm wine to prevent bacterial decay. This process is followed by basting with natron salts, and the corpse is left to shrink for 40 days. Post the shriveling; the body is rewashed and wrapped in a layer of linen cloth. It is coated with resin to avoid water damage. The mummy is sealed in a tomb along with useful worldly things. The Egyptians believe that these worldly things come handy during the journey of the afterlife.
2 – Self-Mummification
The process of mummification practiced by the Shingon Buddhism in Japan during the 12th and early 20th centuries was considered as far more gruesome than the Egyptians. To achieve transcendence, these monks would prepare their bodies through an intense 3000-day training program in mummification.
The climate in Japan is not the best for mummification, as there no peat bogs, no alpine peaks perennially encased in ice, also summer is hot and humid, however these facts didn’t stop the monks from finding the way to mummify themselves with help of rigorous ascetic training in the shadowy peak in the mountainous northern prefecture of Yamagata.
The monks used the practice in emulation of a ninth-century monk named Kukai or Kobo Daishi, the founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism in 806. But in 11th century a hagiography of Kukai claimed that the monk didn’t actually die in 835 but crawled into his tomb and entered a special state of meditation – nyūjō, it is so profound that induces suspended animation. According to this hagiography, the monk plans to come back to life in 5.67 million years.
3 – Preserving in Plastic Bag?
A Peruvian doctor claims to have discovered how to perfectly preserve dead bodies – after unveiling the corpse of his own brother. According to Daily Mail Dr Edgar Aranda tested his embalming technique on his sibling Ramon who died 13 months ago.
Dr Aranda, a university lecturer, spent ten years developing a unique formula along with his students. According to Dr Aranda, ‘One has to extract all the blood and replace it with other liquids. And they are a chemical mix that I will keep secret for the moment.’
His brother’s body was preserved with the chemical mix and wrapped up in a plastic bag. Close-up shots of the body’s hand and forearm revealed that his skin was remarkably similar to when he was alive. In fact, there were no morphological changes to his hair, skin or nails.
4 – Plastination
While our modern life is dominated by the Internet, Netflix, and many such gizmos, don’t you think our corpses need a touch of modernization as well? Well, mummification is an old process, today, we have advanced to what is called as the plastination. No smell, no decomposition, no stinky liquids are what you get with this modern age body preservation process.
Developed by Gunther von Hagens in 1977, this technique is almost like any other embalming procedure. However, in this method, the body is fixed in a preserving solution like a formaldehyde to prevent tissue decomposition. Post this fixation; an anatomist performs the necessary dissections which reveal the important organs and tissues that are inside the body. After this, the body is kept in a sub-zero acetone bath.
As the body freezes, water is drawn out of its cell and is replaced by the acetone. The acetone-filled body is placed in a bath of a liquid polymer containing polyester, silicon rubber, or epoxy resin. The acetone is dispelled under vacuum conditions and draws the liquid plastic inside the body cells. The corpse is now in its final resting position. The plastic-filled organs and tissues are cured with UV light, heat and gas.
The technique of plastination was made famous by Von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibits in the late 90’s.
5 – Steeped in Honey
Throughout history, people have preserved the mortal remains of their friends and relatives in coffins along with burial items preserved in honey. However, the Bencao Gangmu, exotic cures penned by the 16th-century Chinese apothecary of Li Shizhen state that people in ancient Arabia steeped the corpses in honey or practiced mellification to preserve the mortal remains.
According to the Shizhen, it is a self-sacrificial process that begins before death. The to-be-candied men start eating, drinking and bathing in honey as they near the end of their lives. This practice resulted in pissing, sweating, and shitting honey. When they die, the corpses are placed inside the stone coffins and submerged in honey.
After a century or two, the body is pulled out of the sweet brine and broken into small confectionery pieces which are sold in the market for a premium. People in ancient Arabia believed that mellified people heal broken limbs and cure many other ailments. Mary Roach points out in her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, “The popularity of some of these human elixirs probably had less to do with the purported effective ingredient than with the base.” In other words, the honey could have been the central part in curing the ailments.
Although the tales of ancient Arabia may sound mystical, the method of preservation is not wrong. Honey has a unique physical and chemical property that makes it a natural preservative. Amina Harris, executive director of Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis, says that honey has less moisture in its natural form. There are very few bacteria or microorganisms that can survive in a honey-laden environment. The honey’s properties are due to the chemical reactions that occur in a bee’s stomach enzymes and the nectar. Honey contains hydrogen peroxide which is a potent antimicrobial agent.
6 – Cryogenics
Cryogenics is the most preferred body preservation method especially for the spacefarers who are trying to navigate long cosmic distances. This process is the only one which aims to extend life.
In this technique, the principle of cold is followed to preserve organic tissues. Just like some microbes or frogs that can wake up after long stints at subzero, people are trying to preserve people with incurable illnesses with a hope that science and technology will save them tomorrow.
Many establishments like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation is offering cryogenic services. You have to become an Alcor member and sign a contract that guarantees your body space in a tomb of liquid nitrogen that will preserve your body when you die.
The cryopreservation technique at Alcor is supposed to be intense. Immediately after a person’s heart stops functioning, he is moved to an ice bed. The blood circulation and breathing are artificially restarted with a heart lung resuscitator. The person is given a mixture of intravenous drugs which includes anticoagulants and pH buffers before his blood is pumped out and replaced with an organ preservation liquid.
At Alcor’s Arizona facility, the patient’s circulatory system receives another flush before the medical grade antifreeze procedure is introduced. The solution cools the body to a resting temperature of -196ºC (-320ºF) over a period of two weeks. The body is then stored in a stainless steel tank where it stays indefinitely.
The difference between life and death is reduced to the rearrangement of atoms. It is hence certain that in future, medicine can diagnose and repair at a molecular level in order to resuscitate people after long periods of clinical deaths. However, how much memory and personality will survive the repair and healing is still unknown.
The preservation techniques discussed in this article are some fascinating ways in which humans have tried to preserve the remains of their loved ones throughout history.
7 – Living with the Dead
The Toraja of Sulawesi keep the bodies of the deceased in their homes for as long as a few years, believing “that a dead person who is still at home is not dead.” National Geographic documented the culture’s sacred tradition in a video, revealing their lavish celebrations for the dead. When a loved one passes away, the family members treat the body as if the person were still alive. They describe death as prolonged sleep. Torajans take the utmost care of the body, cleaning it and brushing off dirt, changing its clothes, praying with it, feeding it, and leaving the lights on in the evening.
“We are not afraid of the dead body because our love for our ancestors is much greater than our fear,” a relative of one of the deceased says.
Yacob Kakke, an expert of the Torajan culture, explains that lower class citizens tend to the bodies for only a few weeks, while the middle class keep them for several months, and the upper class for a few years. Besides wanting to keep their loved ones near, they also want to push off funerals so as many relatives as possible can attend.